Spiritual (music)
Spirituals are religious (generally Christian) songs which were created by enslaved
Slavery is a system under which people are treated as property to be bought and sold, and are forced to work. Slaves can be held against their will from the time of their capture, purchase or birth, and deprived of the right to leave, to refuse to work, or to demand compensation...

 African people
African people
African people refers to natives, inhabitants, or citizen of Africa and to people of African descent.-Etymology:Many etymological hypotheses that have been postulated for the ancient name "Africa":...

 in America.

Terminology and origin

The term spiritual is derived from spiritual song. The King James Bible's translation of Ephesians 5:19 is: "Speaking to yourselves in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing and making melody in your heart to the Lord." The term spiritual song was often used in the black and white Christian community through the 19th century (and indeed much earlier), and spiritual was used as a noun to mean, according to the context, spiritual person or spiritual thing, but not specifically with regard to song. Negro spiritual first appears in print in the 1860s, where slaves are described as using spirituals for religious songs sung sitting or standing in place, and spiritual shouts for more dance-like music.

Musicologist George Pullen Jackson
George Pullen Jackson
George Pullen Jackson was an American educator and musicologist.Jackson was a native of Monson, Maine. He was a pioneer in the field of Southern hymnody. Many consider him the "most diligent scholar of fasola singing" in the 20th century and one of the foremost musicologists of American folk songs...

 extended the term spiritual to a wider range of folk hymnody, as in his 1938 book White Spirituals in the Southern Uplands, but this does not appear to have been widespread usage previously. The term though has often been broadened to include subsequent arrangements into more standard European-American hymnodic styles, and to include post-emancipation songs with stylistic similarities to the original Negro spirituals.

Although numerous rhythmical and sonic elements of Negro spirituals can be traced to African sources, Negro spirituals are a musical form that is indigenous and specific to the religious experience in the United States of Africans and their descendants. They are a result of the interaction of music and religion from Africa with music and religion of European origin. Further, this interaction occurred only in the United States. Africans who converted to Christianity in other parts of the world, even in the Caribbean
The Caribbean is a crescent-shaped group of islands more than 2,000 miles long separating the Gulf of Mexico and the Caribbean Sea, to the west and south, from the Atlantic Ocean, to the east and north...

 and Latin America
Latin America
Latin America is a region of the Americas where Romance languages  – particularly Spanish and Portuguese, and variably French – are primarily spoken. Latin America has an area of approximately 21,069,500 km² , almost 3.9% of the Earth's surface or 14.1% of its land surface area...

, did not evolve this form.

Religious significance

Negro spirituals were primarily expressions of religious faith. Some may also have served as socio-political protests veiled as assimilation to white American culture. They originated among enslaved Africans
History of slavery in the United States
Slavery in the United States was a form of slave labor which existed as a legal institution in North America for more than a century before the founding of the United States in 1776, and continued mostly in the South until the passage of the Thirteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution in...

 in the United States
United States
The United States of America is a federal constitutional republic comprising fifty states and a federal district...

. Slavery
Slavery is a system under which people are treated as property to be bought and sold, and are forced to work. Slaves can be held against their will from the time of their capture, purchase or birth, and deprived of the right to leave, to refuse to work, or to demand compensation...

 was introduced to the British colonies in the early 17th century, and enslaved people largely replaced indentured servant
Indentured servant
Indentured servitude refers to the historical practice of contracting to work for a fixed period of time, typically three to seven years, in exchange for transportation, food, clothing, lodging and other necessities during the term of indenture. Usually the father made the arrangements and signed...

s as an economic labor force during the 17th century. In the United States, these people would remain in bondage for the entire 18th century and much of the 19th century. Most were not fully emancipated until the ratification of the Thirteenth Amendment to the Constitution
Thirteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution
The Thirteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution officially abolished and continues to prohibit slavery and involuntary servitude, except as punishment for a crime. It was passed by the Senate on April 8, 1864, passed by the House on January 31, 1865, and adopted on December 6, 1865. On...

 in 1865.

Suppression of indigenous religion

During slavery in the United States, there were systematic efforts to de-Africanize the captive Black workforce. Slaves were forbidden from speaking their native languages, and were generally converted to Christianity.

Because they were unable to express themselves freely in ways that were spiritually meaningful to them, enslaved Africans often held secret religious services. During these “bush meetings,” worshipers were free to engage in African religious rituals such as spiritual possession
Spiritual possession
Spirit possession is a paranormal or supernatural event in which it is said that spirits, gods, demons, animas, extraterrestrials, or other disincarnate or extraterrestrial entities take control of a human body, resulting in noticeable changes in health and behaviour...

, speaking in tongues and shuffling in counterclockwise ring shout
Ring shout
A shout or ring shout is an ecstatic, transcendent religious ritual, first practiced by African slaves in the West Indies and the United States, in which worshipers move in a circle while shuffling and stomping their feet and clapping their hands...

s to communal shouts and chants. It was there also that enslaved Africans further crafted the impromptu musical expression of field songs
Field holler
Field Hollers as well as work songs were African American styles of music from before the American Civil War, this style of music is closely related to spirituals in the sense that it expressed religious feelings and included subtle hints about ways of escaping slavery, among other things...

 into the so-called "line singing" and intricate, multi-part harmonies of struggle and overcoming, faith, forbearance and hope that have come to be known as Negro spirituals.

Restrictions were placed on the religious expression of slaves. Rows of benches in places of worship discouraged congregants from spontaneously jumping to their feet and dancing. The use of musical instruments of any kind often was forbidden, and slaves were ordered to desist from the "paganism" of the practice of spiritual possession.

However, several traditions rooted in Africa continue to the present day in African-American spiritual practices. Examples include the "call and response" style of preaching in which the speaker speaks for an interval and the congregation responds in unison in a continual pattern throughout the sermon. The "call and response" is often accompanied by instruments and sounds much like a song. Speaking in tongues is a persistent practice, as is "shouting." Shouting may involve anything from jumping in one place repeatedly, running through the sanctuary, raising hands and arms in the air, shouting traditional praise phrases, or being "slain in the spirit" (fainting). The locations and the era may be different; but the same emphasis on combining sound, movement, emotion, and communal interaction into one focus on faith and its role in overcoming struggles, whether as an individual or a people group, remain the same.

Replacement with Christianity

The lyrics of Christian spirituals reference symbolic aspects of Biblical images such as Moses and Israel's Exodus
The Exodus
The Exodus is the story of the departure of the Israelites from ancient Egypt described in the Hebrew Bible.Narrowly defined, the term refers only to the departure from Egypt described in the Book of Exodus; more widely, it takes in the subsequent law-givings and wanderings in the wilderness...

 from Egypt in songs like Michael Row the Boat Ashore
Michael Row the Boat Ashore
Michael, Row the Boat Ashore is an African-American spiritual. It was first noted during the American Civil War at St. Helena Island, one of the Sea Islands of South Carolina....


Christian hymns and songs were very influential on the writing of African-American spirituals. Slave composers took material from older songs, such as Christian hymns, and the Bible to create something entirely new and special to the culture. Spirituals were not simply different versions of hymns or Bible stories, but rather a creative altering of the material; new melodies and music, refashioned text, and stylistic differences helped to set apart the music as distinctly African-American.

There is also a duality in the lyrics of spirituals. They communicated many Christian ideals while also communicating the hardship that was a result of being an African-American slave. The spiritual was often directly tied to the composer's life. It was a way of sharing religious, emotional, and physical experience through song.

Claims of coded messages

Many internet sources and popular books claim that songs such as "Wade in the Water
Wade in the water
"Wade in the Water" is the name of an African-American spiritual first published in New Jubilee Songs as Sung by the Fisk Jubilee Singers by John Wesley Work II and his brother, Frederick J...

" contained explicit instructions to fugitive slaves on how to avoid capture, and on which routes to take to successfully make their way to freedom. Wade in the Water allegedly recommends leaving dry land and taking to the water as a strategy to throw pursuing bloodhounds off one's trail. "The Gospel Train
The Gospel Train
"The Gospel Train" is a traditional African-American spiritual first published in 1872 as one of the songs of the Fisk Jubilee Singers. A standard Gospel song, it is found in the hymnals of many Protestant denominations and has been recorded by numerous artists.The first verse, including the chorus...

" "Song of the Free
Song of the Free
Song of the Free is a song written in 1860 about a man fleeing slavery in Tennessee by escaping to Canada via the Underground Railroad. It is composed to the tune of Oh! Susanna.-Lyrics:...

", and "Swing Low, Sweet Chariot
Swing Low, Sweet Chariot
"Swing Low, Sweet Chariot" is a historic African-American spiritual. The first recording was in 1909, by the Fisk Jubilee Singers of Fisk University....

" are equally supposed to contain veiled references to the Underground Railroad
Underground Railroad
The Underground Railroad was an informal network of secret routes and safe houses used by 19th-century black slaves in the United States to escape to free states and Canada with the aid of abolitionists and allies who were sympathetic to their cause. The term is also applied to the abolitionists,...

, and many sources assert that "Follow the Drinking Gourd" contained a coded map to the Underground Railroad. The authenticity of such claims has been challenged as speculative, and critics have pointed to the apparent lack of primary source material in support of them.

Jubilee Singers of Fisk University

In the 1850s, Reverend Alexander Reid, superintendent of the Spencer Academy in the old Choctaw Nation
Choctaw Nation of Oklahoma
The Choctaw Nation of Oklahoma is a semi-autonomous Native American homeland comprising twelve tribal districts. The Choctaw Nation maintains a special relationship with both the United States and Oklahoma governments...

, hired some enslaved Africans from the Choctaws for some work around the school. He heard two of them, "Uncle Wallace
Wallace Willis
Uncle Wallace Willis was a Choctaw freedman living in the Indian Territory. His dates are unclear: perhaps 1820 to 1880. He is credited with composing several Negro spirituals. Willis received his name from his owner, Britt Willis, probably in Mississippi, the ancestral home of the Choctaws...

" and "Aunt Minerva" Willis, singing religious songs they had apparently composed. Among these songs were Swing Low, Sweet Chariot, Steal Away to Jesus, The Angels are Coming, I'm a Rolling, and Roll Jordan Roll. Later, Reid, who left Indian Territory at the beginning of the Civil War, attended a musical program put on by a group of Negro singers from Fisk University
Fisk University
Fisk University is an historically black university founded in 1866 in Nashville, Tennessee, U.S. The world-famous Fisk Jubilee Singers started as a group of students who performed to earn enough money to save the school at a critical time of financial shortages. They toured to raise funds to...

. They were singing mostly popular music of the day, and Reid thought the songs he remembered from his time in the Choctaw Nation would be at least as appropriate. He and his wife transcribed the songs of the Willises as they remembered them and sent them to Fisk University.

The Jubilee Singers put on their first performance singing the old captives' songs at a religious conference in 1871. The songs were first published in 1872 in a book titled Jubilee Songs as Sung by the Jubilee Singers of Fisk University, by Theodore F. Seward. Wallace Willis died in 1883 or 84.

Over time the pieces the Jubilee Singers performed came to be arranged and performed by trained musicians. In 1873, Mark Twain
Mark Twain
Samuel Langhorne Clemens , better known by his pen name Mark Twain, was an American author and humorist...

, whose father had owned slaves, found Fisk singing to be "in the genuine old way" he remembered from childhood. By contrast an anonymous 1881 review in the Peoria Journal said “they have lost the wild rhythms, the barbaric melody, the passion….[T]hey smack of the North….” Some fifty years later, Zora Neale Hurston
Zora Neale Hurston
Zora Neale Hurston was an American folklorist, anthropologist, and author during the time of the Harlem Renaissance...

 in her 1938 book The Sanctified Church criticized Fisk singers, and similar groups at Tuskegee and Hampton, as using a "Glee Club style" that was "full of musicians' tricks" not to be found in the original Negro spirituals, urging readers to visit an "unfashionable Negro church" to experience real Negro spirituals.

Other collections

A second important early collection of lyrics is Slave Songs of the United States
Slave Songs of the United States
Slave Songs of the United States was a collection of African American music published in 1867. It was the first, and most influential, collection of spirituals to be published; the collectors were Northern abolitionists, William Francis Allen, Lucy McKim Garrison and Charles Pickard Ware. It is a...

by William Francis Allen
William Francis Allen
William Francis Allen was an American classical scholar and an editor of the first book of American slave songs....

, Charles Pickard Ware
Charles Pickard Ware
Charles Pickard Ware , was an American educator and music transcriber. An abolitionist, he served as a civilian administrator in the Union Army, where he was a supervisor of freedmen on plantations at Port Royal, South Carolina during the Civil War...

, and Lucy McKim Garrison
Lucy McKim Garrison
Lucy McKim Garrison was an American song collector, contributor to Slave Songs of the United States. Her work in Port Royal, South Carolina constitutes the first attempt systematically describe the characteristics of African American spirituals.-Notes:...


A group of lyrics to Negro spirituals was published by Colonel Thomas Wentworth Higginson
Thomas Wentworth Higginson
Thomas Wentworth Higginson was an American Unitarian minister, author, abolitionist, and soldier. He was active in the American Abolitionism movement during the 1840s and 1850s, identifying himself with disunion and militant abolitionism...

, who commanded a regiment of former slaves during the Civil War, in an article in The Atlantic Monthly and subsequently included in his 1869 memoir Army Life in a Black Regiment (1869).

The latter half of the Twentieth Century saw a resurgence of the Spiritual. This trend was impacted strongly by composers and musical directors such as Moses Hogan
Moses Hogan
Moses George Hogan was an African-American composer and arranger of choral music. He was best known for his very popular and accessible settings of spirituals. Hogan was a pianist, conductor and arranger of international renown...

 and Brazeal Dennard
Brazeal Dennard
Brazeal Dennard was an African-American singer, educator, Choral director, and musical arranger. He has been a significant contributor in the preservation and revitalization of the spiritual musical form...


See also

  • History of slavery in the United States
    History of slavery in the United States
    Slavery in the United States was a form of slave labor which existed as a legal institution in North America for more than a century before the founding of the United States in 1776, and continued mostly in the South until the passage of the Thirteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution in...

  • Deep River Boys
    Deep River Boys
    The Deep River Boys were an American gospel music group active from the mid 1930s and into the 1980s. The group performed spirituals, gospel, and R&B.-Members:...

  • Religious music
    Religious music
    Religious music is music performed or composed for religious use or through religious influence.A lot of music has been composed to complement religion, and many composers have derived inspiration from their own religion. Many forms of traditional music have been adapted to fit religions'...

  • African-American music
  • Gospel music
    Gospel music
    Gospel music is music that is written to express either personal, spiritual or a communal belief regarding Christian life, as well as to give a Christian alternative to mainstream secular music....

Further reading

  • Nash, Elizabeth (2007). "Autobiographical Reminiscences of African-American Classical Singers, 1853-Present". Lewiston: Edwin Mellen Press. ISBN 0-7734-5250-8

External links

Audio samples

  • Listen to "Pharaoh's Army Got Drowned," artists unknown (765 KB)
  • Download recording of "My Good Lord Done Been Here", from the Library of Congress' John and Ruby Lomax 1939 Southern States Recording Trip; performed by Aunt Florida Hampton on May 29, 1939, at the home of Mr. and Mrs. P.W. Tartt in Livingston, Alabama
    Livingston, Alabama
    Livingston is a city in Sumter County, Alabama, United States. At the 2000 census the population was 3,297. The city is the county seat of Sumter County.-Geography:Livingston is located at .According to the U.S...

  • Download recording of "Roll the Old Chariot Along", spiritual and sea shanty
    Sea shanty
    A shanty is a type of work song that was once commonly sung to accompany labor on board large merchant sailing vessels. Shanties became ubiquitous in the 19th century era of the wind-driven packet and clipper ships...

     from the Library of Congress'
  • Gordon Collection; performed by unknown persons in the Bay Area of California in the early 1920s
  • Download recording of "Deep Down in My Heart", from the Library of Congress' Gordon Collection; performed by W. M. Givens in Darien, Georgia
    Darien, Georgia
    Darien is a city in McIntosh County, Georgia, United States. It lies on Georgia's coast at the mouth of the Altamaha River about 50 miles south of Savannah, and is part of the Brunswick, Georgia Metropolitan Statistical Area. The population of Darien was 1,719 at the 2000 census. The city is the...

    , on about March 19, 1926
The source of this article is wikipedia, the free encyclopedia.  The text of this article is licensed under the GFDL.